Ranking the SEC West's 10 best candidates to win Defensive Player of the Year
The SEC is well known for its quality of defense. That’s a big reason the conference is home to so nine national championships in the past 12 seasons. Take a look back at the past winners of the prestigious SEC Defensive Player of the Year award and you’ll see a list of some truly unbelievable players, many of whom will likely find themselves in the College Football Hall of Fame someday.
Looking ahead to the 2018 season the SEC West features a staggering number of candidates for Defensive Player of the Year. When looking at this list you have to just shake your head at the level of talent, and then you remember that it’s only one division of one conference. This is practically a Who’s who of future first-round draft picks.
So, who are the top 10 candidates from the SEC West to win DPOY? Let’s take a look.
10. Mark McLaurin, S, Mississippi State
McLaurin is a big (6-2, 215) and instinctive safety who enjoyed a breakout junior campaign in 2017 when he tallied 79 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and 6 INTs. Granted, 3 of those INTs came in the bowl game against Lamar Jackson, but numbers are numbers and he played very well throughout the season, leading a very stout Bulldog defense in tackles and INTs.
He’s a heady and savvy leader who rarely finds himself out of position and regularly finds himself in position to make a big play, which he often capitalizes upon. He’s playing for his fourth different DC in as many years, which is stunning, but the fact that new coordinator Bob Shoop is also the safeties coach should ease the transition. The new scheme will also be very similar to what Todd Grantham ran last year. With the elite pass rushers the Bulldogs have up front, QBs are going to be forced into a lot of mistakes and McLaurin should again clean up.
9. Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
There are few players with the size (6-5, 325), strength and athleticism of Brown, who will likely be a first round pick next spring should he pass on his senior season. His impact on Auburn’s defense, which will again be one of the best nationally, extend far beyond the stat sheet, so don’t let somewhat modest numbers fool you. He’s a very disruptive player who constantly necessitates double teams, which free up teammates to rack up numbers.
Brown is very powerful at the point of attack and can collapse the pocket and clog rushing lanes. He’s one of the rare players who can get upfield and harass the QB, and play two-gaps against the run. With the flexible Tigers defense moving him around to capitalize on his diverse skill set, I expect an even greater season this fall. As arguably the best player on an elite defense with the talent level to play deep into the postseason, he should garner serious consideration for DPOY.
8. Tyrel Dodson, LB, Texas A&M
The Aggies’ defense didn’t take the strides many anticipated last year, but Dodson’s play was one of the bright spots. He again figures to play a prominent role in yet another revamped defense, now lead by Mike Elko. As a sophomore last year Dodson erupted for 104 tackles, 10 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 3 INTs and 8 PD (and was somehow left off the All-SEC team).
Elko is known for his ability to develop LBs, and Dodson and senior Otaro Alaka figure to benefit greatly from his tutelage. He’ll be running predominantly a 4-2-5 defense, which will give Dodson ample opportunity to take advantage of his range and playmaking ability, in coverage and against the run. And of course, Elko is going to cut him loose on the QB, as well, meaning Dodson should again put up huge numbers for an improving defense.
7. Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State
After showing flashes of his exceptional athleticism as a true freshman in 2016, Simmons took the next step in his sophomore year by becoming a truly dominant interior defensive lineman. The former 5-star prospect is physical specimen who has a powerful base and a quick first step, constantly disrupting the pocket with his ability to consistently penetrate the backfield. You’d think he’d be a better fit at the 3 with his ability to get upfield, but he’s been very effective at NT, where he just destroys centers with his speed and strength.
The defensive line will be very talented this year and opposing offenses can’t simply double everyone on every play, so Simmons will have a very good chance to improve on his impressive numbers from 2017 (60 tackles, 12 TFLs and 5 sacks). Another big season and strong performances against the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU will put him in the running for DPOY.
6. Mack Wilson, ILB, Alabama
Another big, fast, athletic, rangy and heady LB for Alabama? Shocking, I know. The latest in a long line of gifted LBs under the Saban regime in Tuscaloosa, Wilson put up solid numbers last year despite missing a few games with injury, finishing with 40 tackles, 2.5 TFLs and 4 INTs. With Rashaan Evans (1st round, 2018) off to the NFL, Wilson is expected to replace him at ILB and become the leader of the front seven.
He’s at his best in coverage, showing very good instincts and fluidity, with range and speed to make plays all over the field. As he’s continued to get stronger and more physical, he’s become better at the point of attack, shedding bigger interior linemen and getting better run fits. Assuming he can stay healthy this year, he should be a strong candidate for DPOY as he should put up big numbers on what could be the best defense in the country for a team again competing for titles.
5. Landis Durham, DE, Texas A&M
Durham was one of the premier edge rushers in college football last year as he tallied 10.5 sacks and 11 TFLs with 3 forced fumbles. The 6-3, 255-pound senior will look to better those already impressive numbers in his final season under new DC Mike Elko, who was brought in from Notre Dame. Elko doesn’t have the same history of producing elite edge rushers as former DC John Chavis, but he also hasn’t had a talent like Durham, either.
There’s not many players nationally from the film I’ve studied with more natural burst or twitch than what Durham has shown. His first step is lightning quick and with his explosiveness he’s halfway to the QB by the time the OT is out of his stance. He’ll have ample opportunity to further increase his exposure this fall against elite OT’s with Mitch Hyatt (Clemson), Jonah Williams (Alabama) and Greg Little (Ole Miss) on his plate this year
4. Greedy Williams, CB, LSU
The SEC regularly boasts top shelf CBs, and this fall will be no different, with close to half a dozen All-American candidates. Arguably the best of the bunch is Williams, who burst onto the national scene as a redshirt freshman last year, tallying 38 tackles and tying for most INTs in the SEC with 6. He’s already being mentioned as a likely top-10 pick, despite only playing in 13 career games.
At 6-2, 182 he’s a long and lanky corner who can play press, off or zone coverage at a very high level. He’s exceptionally fluid in transition with elite recovery speed and tremendous ball skills, using his long arms well. I’d be very surprised if he came anywhere close to the numbers this fall that he posted last fall – teams are going to avoid him – but his impact will be enormous. There’s almost no such thing as a true shutdown corner who can legitimately be left on an island every play no matter the matchup, but Williams comes awfully close.
3. Montez Sweat, DE, Mississippi State
After transferring in from Michigan State, Sweat quickly became an integral piece to a very talented MSU defense, and by year’s end was arguably the best player on the team. He finished his junior campaign with 48 tackles, 15.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks. At 6-6, 241 he has ideal length for an edge rusher with good flexibility and twitch, showing excellent athleticism and the ability to run the arc.
I think Sweat is the most talented edge rusher in college football, and considering the talent he’ll be playing alongside up front he’ll again have the opportunity to put up big numbers. Even if he doesn’t put up another 10.5 sacks, he’ll constantly force offenses to help their OT with help from backs and TEs, and he’s shown the ability to consistently split doubles and pressure the QB from anywhere.
2. Devin White, LB, LSU
It seems like White was in on practically every play last year, tallying a league-high 133 tackles with 13.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. This kid was a rock in the middle of the defense, showing the strength to enforce the inside run and the speed and range to cover sideline-to-sideline. Along with Greedy Williams, White is another rockstar on the LSU defense being mentioned as a potential top 10 pick next spring.
Unlike Williams, whom offenses can avoid, White will again be in position to put up huge numbers in the middle of the LSU defense. He’s an ideal fit in the Tigers’ 3-4 defense, and DC Dave Aranda does a great job capitalizing on his unique and diverse skill set, unleashing him from various looks. The Tigers are working in some fresh faces on the defensive line this year but White should again put a huge year statistically while leading a very talented unit.
1. Raekwon Davis, DE, Alabama
Davis is one of more freakishly gifted players I’ve ever seen with an unbelievable combination of strength, quickness and lateral mobility for a man standing 6-7, 310. After seeing limited playing time as a true freshman in 2016, Davis blew up as a sophomore, finishing third on the team in tackles with 69 and leading the team in sacks with 8.5. By the end of the year he was practically unstoppable and finished the Playoff with 10 tackles, 2 sacks and an INT, mauling two very good offensive lines from both Clemson and Georgia and constantly wreaking havoc in the backfield.
As arguably the best player on the best team in the country, of course Davis should be considered a legitimate candidate for SEC DPOY.
He’s trying to become the second Alabama DE to win the award in the past three years with Jonathan Allen doing so in 2016. Assuming he stays healthy and plays remotely close to his potential, it’s hard to envision him not being the odds-on favorite to come home with the hardware at the end of the year.